What are the hazards of living in space? Swollen heads, for one

With the recent surge in commercial spaceflight, the possibility of humans venturing beyond low-Earth orbit is becoming increasingly likely in the coming decades. As we prepare for this eventuality, scientists, engineers, and medical professionals are dedicated to identifying and mitigating the unique challenges that interplanetary travel poses to human health and well-being.

One major concern is Spaceflight Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS). On Earth, our bodies continuously fight gravity to pump fluids up to our heads. However, in microgravity environments, cranial fluid doesn’t fully drain, resulting in fluid pooling in the face and skull. This additional pressure on the brain can cause vision changes and other symptoms. While preventative measures for SANS are still being explored, potential solutions include artificial gravity and specialized negative-pressure suits.

Another significant challenge is radiation. On Earth, we are shielded from cosmic radiation by the planet’s magnetic field. However, outside this protective zone, astronauts are exposed to highly charged particles that can damage cells and increase the risk of radiation sickness and cancer. To mitigate this risk, spacecraft are shielded, and radiation exposure is closely monitored. For future missions to the Moon or Mars, potential solutions include building habitats with insulating layers of water or regolith, or using a combination of spacecraft shielding and biological methods such as gene editing.

The microbiome, the complex cultures of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses that live on and inside us, also presents challenges in space. Studies have shown that the balance of the microbiome gets disrupted during space travel, leading to health issues such as skin rashes and hypersensitivity. Extended missions to other worlds may introduce different alterations to the microbiome. Maintaining a healthy diet combined with prebiotics and probiotics is currently seen as a potential solution to prevent long-term microbiome changes.

Ensuring a cohesive crew is crucial for successful long-duration space missions. This involves considering not only the individual capabilities of astronauts but also their compatibility as a group. Analog missions, which simulate living on the Moon or Mars in isolated environments on Earth, are valuable for studying the dynamics of isolated groups. However, even with a cohesive crew, the inherent stress of long-duration space travel can lead to frustrations. One innovative solution being explored is the concept of “torpor,” a hibernation-like state in which astronauts sleep through transit. Research is ongoing to determine the feasibility and benefits of this stasis-based strategy.

As we continue to advance in space exploration, addressing these challenges and finding effective solutions is crucial for the well-being and success of future astronauts. By understanding and mitigating the risks of SANS, radiation exposure, microbiome changes, and crew dynamics, we can pave the way for safe and successful human spaceflight beyond Earth’s orbit.

Analog missions, like the NASA one seen here, are an important way for researchers to study the complex behavior of people isolated in small groups for long periods of time. Credit: NASA

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